Ask a Franciscan

What If a Pope Becomes Comatose?

IVs in a hospital | Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

When I heard that Pope Francis was undergoing surgery requiring general anesthesia, I wondered who would be in charge of the Church while he was incapacitated. I was told no one would be in charge. Is that correct?

God is always in charge, but there can be a gap in God’s human agents. In September 1271, Pope Gregory X was elected after a nearly three-year vacancy because two-thirds of the cardinals could not agree on a person to elect. A much shorter gap typically exists between the death or resignation of one pope and the election of the next one.

Canon law currently provides no clear procedure should the bishop of Rome become incapacitated and unable to govern the Church. In the June 9, 2023, English edition of the La Croix International newsletter, Loup Besmond de Senneville wrote that the recent hospitali­zation of Pope Francis raises the possibility of a pope becoming comatose. Thanks be to God, that did not hap­pen when he was under general anesthesia, but it could.

Besmond wrote: “Surprising as it may seem, the Code of Canon Law does not contain any provisions for the impediment of a pope. Admittedly, the bishop of Rome can always renounce his office, according to canon 332, but this renunciation must be ‘made freely’ and ‘properly manifested.’ But this canon makes no provision for the temporary vacancy of the See of Peter.

“On the other hand, the code does provide for the case of the ‘impediment’ of a diocesan bishop, which could well apply to the bishop of Rome, according to canon lawyers La Croix consulted. They pointed to canon 412, which says: ‘An episcopal see is understood to be impeded if by reason of captivity, banishment, exile, or incapacity a diocesan bishop is clearly prevented from fulfilling his pastoral function in the diocese, so that he is not able to communicate with those in his diocese even by letter. The canonist said ‘incapacity’ could also be applied to health.”

Besmond went on to note that in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI called a secret meeting of 15 canonists charged with working on the question of a pope’s impediment. “These experts drew up a new article of canon law providing for the College of Cardinals to declare that a pope was prevented from exercising power. But this canon was never promulgated.”

“The proposed canon stipulated that the cardinal-electors (those under the age of 80) would have to establish that the Roman Pontiff is impeded or inca­pacitated,” La Croix reported. “The cardinal-dean would then temporarily exercise the pope’s power, unless it is decided that there is a definitive vacancy of the Apostolic See, thus triggering the convocation of a conclave.”

In 2022, Pope Francis said in an interview with a Spanish daily that in 2013 he signed a letter of renun­ciation in the event that health problems would totally prevent him from governing. The letter was given to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was secretary of state at the time. “I signed the resignation and told him: ‘In case of a health impediment or whatever, here is my resigna­tion. You have it,’” the pope said.

“Francis later clarified that he prepared the letter in case a ‘health problem’ prevented him ‘from exercising his ministry and (he) would not be conscious enough to resign,’” La Croix reported.

Same-Sex Marriages

Does the Catholic Church condone or approve of a same-sex marriage for an LGBTQ couple? It is, of course, legal in some places.

The Catholic Church urges respect for the God-given dignity for all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation. At the same time, the Church recog­nizes that the Sacrament of Marriage is between a man and a woman.

Pope Francis has, on a number of occasions, repeated this while also calling for the legal recognition of civil unions of same-sex couples. That is not, however, the same as accepting as sacramental a marriage for those two people.

The state can declare some things legal and others as illegal. That is not the same as declaring them morally good or morally evil. In most but not all cases, what is morally good is also legal, but it cannot always work the other way around.

Healthy, long-term relationships of any kind require much of the same virtues, habits, and readiness to sacrifice for the good of the other person.

Where to Draw the Line?

Several months ago I learned that a line of stem cells was used in developing some of the COVID-19 vaccines and/or treatments, al­though the consensus among most Church leaders was that it was OK to receive it. How can people make their way through this forest of choices? How much research do I need to do about the medications and the products I use? And where can I find that information? Also, some products and stores that I like contribute to Planned Parenthood.

Yes, there are many choices to be made, and finding relevant information is not always easy. The most basic question, it seems, is: What would a reason­able person do with the information that he or she already has? What further information is needed to make a morally good choice? The Catholic Health Association ( may be helpful.

In this, as in many others, a reasonable person will eventually say, “Enough is enough!” May the Lord be your strength and your guide in this and in related issues.

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